How to Camp in an RV Without Maiming Yourself

In this age of continuing COVID-related social isolation, RVs are at the peak of their popularity. With more folks getting into camping for the first time, we thought it’d be a good idea to go over a few safety tips to help make sure your next vacation destination isn’t the intensive care unit.

The Basics

You’ve finally done it. You’ve pulled the trigger and are now the owner of a shiny new (or dusty old) camper. Looks great sitting in the driveway, but maybe you’ve never pulled a trailer or driven a motorhome before. Or maybe you have, but could use a refresher in how to handle RVs safely. You’ve come to the right place! We’ll go through some basic safety tips for both trailer and motorhome RVs to help make sure you can concentrate on having fun on your camping trip rather than thinking about where you left the first aid kit.

The most basic safety tip we have is to make lists. There are a lot of steps to prepping an RV for a trip, setting it up at the campsite, breaking it down when it’s time to leave, and preparing it for sitting. You’re going to forget a step or two along the way. If you forget the beer at home, well, that’s tragic but it’s not unsafe. On the other hand, if you forget to retract your slideouts? That can hurt, both financially and physically. So make yourself some checklists.

Start out by printing the list and filling it out on your first trip. You’ll probably think of something you should have put on the list. Go ahead and scribble it down, then add it to the document when you get home. Once you have the list sorted out, you can print a final copy and laminate it for permanent storage in the RV. Or if you’re more technically-inclined, keep a digital checklist. The app stores for both iPhone and Android have several checklist-making apps available.

Before You Buy

I know, we said you’ve already bought the rig. But if you haven’t, you can start thinking about safety while you’re shopping for your RV, and a good place to begin is with weight. All RVs have a number of weight ratings, some of which are listed on a sticker located somewhere in the RV. Often in motorhomes it’ll be on a door or door frame, but not always. We’ve even seen it hiding in the closet in the rear bedroom on some rigs. You’ll want to find that sticker to determine how much your camper weighs.

Trailers

Campers are usually advertised as weighing a certain amount. That number is usually the Unloaded Vehicle Weight (or Unloaded Trailer Weight) - which is how much the rig weighs empty, with no passengers, gear, or water in the tanks. The problem with that rating is that people often buy a camper advertised as weighing 4,500 pounds, and assume that because their tow vehicle is rated to pull 5,000 pounds they’re all set.

But those folks forgot to take into account how much weight they’re cramming into the camper after they buy it. Clothes, food, drinks, chairs, bikes, grills, family members and all the other junk we bring when we’re supposed to be roughing it adds a lot of weight to the camper. When you only have 500 pounds between your max tow weight and what the trailer weighs empty, it’s surprisingly easy to go over.

It’s a good idea when shopping for a trailer to add at least 500 to 1,000 pounds to its empty weight as a rough estimate of how much it’s going to weigh when it’s packed for a trip. The larger the trailer, the more you should be leaning toward the high end of that estimate. That’s particularly important for toy hauler campers; ATVs can weigh 700 pounds, and you need to take that into account when figuring out whether or not your vehicle can tow the trailer safely.

Motorhomes

Figuring out weights for motorhomes is similar to campers, but unlike trailers, you need to think about how much the people going on the trip weigh, because they’ll be in the camper adding to its weight while it’s moving. That’s why you need to find that yellow sticker that tells you its Cargo Carrying Capacity (CCC). It will have a section that says, “The combined weight of occupants and cargo should never exceed…” That number’s the one you need to think about, especially if you’re dealing with a larger Class C motorhome with slideouts. Many of those have CCCs in the low-thousand pound range. That sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t, even just for weekend trips. Two adults weighing 200 pounds and two kids weighing 80, plus a 40 pound dog means you’ve already shaved 400 pounds off of your cargo weight before loading one piece of gear in the rig.

Also remember that if you tow a trailer or a vehicle with your motorhome, the weight on the tongue counts toward your CCC use.

Weigh It!

Once you’ve got your trailer or motorhome, the only way to be sure you’re not overweight is to load it up with everything you’re taking on the trip, and get it weighed. That’s easier than you’d think - there are plenty of public scales around that you can use to find out how heavy your camper is when loaded. It doesn’t cost much money, and it can mean the difference between getting to your campsite or getting to a hospital. Remember to add the weight of passengers if you’re weighing a motorhome and they don’t come with you to the scale.

If possible, you want to weigh your rig at a certified scale, so you know the measurement is accurate. For that, you’re looking for a CAT scale, which stands for Certified Auto Truck. It’s easy to find them - there’s a locator available online at this website.

Tires

Especially on a motorhome, tires are a critical component of RV safety. Always check your tires before a trip. Be sure they have enough tread, and check for cracking and dry rot, which RV tires are particularly susceptible to because they spend a lot of time sitting outside. Also check the speed and load rating of your tires to make sure they’re high enough for the weight and speeds you’ll be driving with.

Should a tire blow while you’re driving, it’s easy to lose control in a motorhome. They’re heavy and not exactly nimble, so especially if you lose a front tire, it can be hard to keep them on the road while you slow down. The technique for handling a blowout is a little unintuitive: When you hear the tire blow, you want to floor the accelerator while steering to keep the rig going straight. There’s a physics explanation for that involving force vectors, but suffice to say hitting the gas will help keep your motorhome from swerving. For more information on that, and a demonstration, check out this old video put together by the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association.

Hitching

If your RV is a trailer, you’ll need to hitch it. 5th wheel trailers are fairly self-explanatory, but trailers that hook to a ball on the back of your car need an extra step to be sure they’re safe. After you have the trailer hitched, make sure to hook the safety chains to the vehicle as well. It’s best to cross the chains underneath the trailer’s tongue - that way, if the trailer gets detached from the hitch, the chains will catch it before it hits the ground.

If you’re hitching a car or trailer to a motorhome, remember that the tongue weight of the trailer counts toward your Cargo Carrying Capacity limit.

Driving

Driving an RV safely is mainly an exercise in keeping your speed down. Sure, the speed limit in some states might be as high as 80mph, but driving a camper that fast isn’t a good idea for a number of reasons. First, your mileage will suffer, and pulling a camper or driving a motorhome is already a severe drain on fuel; Many RVers feel lucky if they get more than 10mpg driving at reduced speeds.

But most importantly, the reason you want to slow down while driving or pulling your camper goes back to what we talked about in the tire section - blowouts. Accelerating after a blowout helps you keep the vehicle under control. But if you’re already going fast, it’s harder for the vehicle to accelerate, if it even can. Keeping your speed down gives you a cushion to use if you need it. Remember while driving longer motorhomes with significant overhangs behind the rear wheels, that the back end of your vehicle will swing to the outside of any turn you make. That’s not a big deal on the highway, but when you’re pulling out of a gas station, it’s surprisingly easy to smack the gas pump if you turn too soon. Give yourself a little more room by going straight, if you can, until the back end of your motorhome clears the pumps.

Any time you turn, whether you’re driving a motorhome or pulling a camper, you want to be watching your mirrors. They’ll help you determine if something bad is happening at the back of your setup. Lots of people have gotten themselves into trouble by not using their mirrors to make sure everything’s clear as they’re maneuvering around.

RVs are heavy and tend to accelerate like glaciers. Remember that as you’re merging or crossing roads - it’s going to take you a lot longer to get up to speed, so make sure you have plenty of room to do it. On a similar note, RVs don’t stop on a dime, so leave yourself a lot more following distance than you would in a car, and try to watch what traffic is doing several cars ahead, so you have early warning when people start braking.

Arriving

Getting to the campsite is the best part of the trip. You’re only a few minutes away from relaxing around a fire! But it can also be the most stressful part of the trip, especially if the campsite isn’t a pull-through. Now you need to back up a long motorhome or camper without hitting anything.

If your rig doesn’t already have one, invest in a backup camera. You can get a wireless one that attaches to the back of a trailer and transmits to a monitor in front. Motorhome drivers can do the same, or they can go with the more reliable, but more difficult to install, wired setup.

But don’t rely only on that camera. Have someone get out and act as your spotter. They’re looking to make sure you’re not about to run something over, or run into a low hanging tree branch.

Once you’re parked, if you have any slideouts, have your spotter watch and make sure they don’t hit anything as you run them out. Having a cheap set of 2-way radios is a big help here, since cell phones don’t always work in remote campgrounds.

Camping

Staying safe while camping isn’t all that hard. Keep the camper locked when you’re away from it or when you’re sleeping in it. Crime isn’t overly common in campgrounds, but it does happen. Often even the simple barrier of locking a camper door is enough to make a thief move on to the next, easier target. Put any outside food away before you turn in for the night to keep animals from coming by for a snack. That’s especially important if you’re camping in bear country.

And, we shouldn’t have to say this but it’s actually been a problem - make sure your RV is parked far enough away from the campfire - more than one camper has found their awning damaged from being too close to a sparking campfire.

Leaving

Leaving a campsite is when checklists come in really handy. You’re tired, relaxed, and just thinking about getting home. It’s easy to forget basic things like retracting the slideouts, TV antenna, and awnings. Once everything’s packed away and you’ve finished the checklist, do a final walkaround. Make sure you haven’t left anything behind, extended, or unlatched. If it’s a trailer, double check the hitch connection and the chains. Check your tire pressures too, just to be sure one isn’t leaking.

And that’s about it. RV safety isn’t hard. It just takes a little time and effort to make sure your vacation goes as smoothly as possible.

For information on the Best Extended Warranty for your RV, click here.

For tips on How to Buy a Used RV, click here.

FAQ

Are RVs safe in a crash?

In a word, no. It’s best to try and avoid crashes. RVs are large, can be top-heavy, and the house part is often built of fairly flimsy materials.

How do you stay safe in a camper?

Staying safe in a camper isn’t hard. Just follow a few common sense guidelines like the ones we outlined in this article.

Is full time RVing safe?

It’s pretty safe! The biggest dangers in the RV world come from wild animals and equipment failures like tire blowouts.

What is the best RV for full-time living?

A bus-conversion Class A motorhome is the most trouble-free way to live full-time in an RV. Buses are built to last a million miles or more, so unlike regular motorhomes, they’re less likely to rattle apart on you as you drive them.

Is it cheaper to live in an RV?

Absolutely not! RV enthusiasts camp in recreational vehicles because they like them. If you’re lucky, you’ll break even on a trip compared to driving a regular car and staying in a hotel.

What are the pros and cons of living in an RV?

Pros: Your hotel room travels with you and is configured exactly to your liking. Cons: You’re responsible for maintaining and driving that hotel room around the country. Fuel efficiency is low, and repairs on the road can be expensive and hard to schedule.

Editor's note and disclaimer: Car Talk is supported by our fans, readers and listeners. When you click on some of the links on our website, we may receive referral compensation. However, you should know that the recommendations we make are based on our independent editorial review and analyses.

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